Salsa and seltzer? Jewish-Cuban hybrid emerges

It’s a bit like the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game, only it has nothing to do with “Footloose” or “The River Wild.” It has to do with Jews, mass migrations and the mambo.

That’s the game musician David Buchbinder played when he searched for a link between traditional klezmer and Cuban music. The Toronto composer/trumpeter says he found that link, and is demonstrating it through the power of his music.

Odessa/Havana is the name of Buchbinder’s new seven-piece ensemble he co-leads with Cuban-born keyboardist Hilario Duran. Playing all originals, the two fuse Cuban and Jewish influences in a fiery jazz setting.

Odessa/Havana comes to the Bay Area on Dec. 1 for a concert at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“There’s something in common in the way both are sung,” Buchbinder says from his Toronto home. “Not stylistically, but it has to do with the intensity and passion of the singing, using the voice to carry underlying messages. Not only do they both work out of minor keys, they use a similar mode, and a lot of chord patterns are similar.”

He also sees similarities between the Santeria-influenced Cuban drum grooves and niggunim, the spiritual wordless melodies sung by observant Jews at the Shabbat dinner table.

Long before he met Duran, Buchbinder perceived a connection between Jewish music and some Latino styles. While living in Germany 20 years ago, he joined a salsa band and recalls thinking, “This sounds really Jewish.”

Though a seasoned jazz player, Buchbinder loved Jewish music. He grew up in a Conservative home, spent time in Israel living on a kibbutz and absorbed the tropes of liturgical music. Later in life, as a professional musician he formed the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and founded the Ashkenaz Festival, one of Canada’s top Jewish music festivals.

Even then, he had Cuban music on his mind. He played with Colombian and Venezuelan bands back in the day, and when tackling Jewish music he found a subtle Latino influence at work.

Buchbinder recalls arranging a Yiddish folk song for his klezmer group and injecting a little Ricky Ricardo into the mix. “I was playing around with the chorus and a montuno came out [a repeating Cuban-flavored chord]. We ended up making a fake merengue out of it.”

There’s nothing fake about Buchbinder’s partner, Hilario Duran. One of the musical heirs to Cuba’s famed Buena Vista Social Club, he came to Canada 13 years ago seeking freedom, artistic and otherwise. It wasn’t long before he established Toronto’s thriving Cuban music scene.

“Hilario is an amazing musician,” says Buchbinder, who first played with Duran last year. “He is extremely deep as a player and composer. Musically, he’s also very open, approachable and curious. He has a deep feeling for the Jewish music.”

That’s because the links between Jewish and Cuban music go beyond chord structure or minor keys. Both musical styles have origins in medieval Islamic Spain, says Buchbinder.

“In that time and place there was a multicultural society considered a golden age of Jewish life,” he says. “There were incredible strides in music and poetry by Arabs and Jews. With the expulsion [of the Jews from Spain in 1492], I discovered a sizeable minority went to Eastern Europe, which means that culture fused, hence the klezmer connection.”

Since teaming up, Buchbinder and Duran have recorded their first album together. Titled “Odessa/Havana,” the CD is now in stores.

And if Toronto seems too many climate zones away from the Cuban tropics, Buchbinder and Duran have strived to make their musical and cultural partnership work. “This project,’ he says, “is steeped in both these cultures.”

Odessa/Havana plays 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California, S.F. Tickets: $25-$32. Information: (415) 292-1233 or


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